Pilgrims' progress

Christians are flocking to the banks of the Jordan, and Israel is ready to embrace the spirit.

By LARRY DERFNER
December 22, 2005 12:57
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A procession of about 50 white-robed, barefooted Christians from the Prayer Palace evangelical church in Toronto waded into the fearfully cold, late-November water of the Jordan River, waiting their turn to get baptized. "Hold onto the rails, it's slippery," called out one of the church members guiding them. The sun was starting to go down at Yardenit, the baptismal facility on the Jordan a little below the dam at Lake Kinneret, or the Sea of Galilee. Each year, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims descend on Yardenit from across the Christian world. A trio of black gospel singers from the multi-ethnic Toronto congregation filled the air with the most gorgeous, swelling, hypnotic harmonies, and the pilgrims waiting to get baptized, along with a crowd watching from the deck above, joined in: Precious Jesus sweet rose of Sharon There's peace and triumph when we speak his name. Loving savior My sunshine in the midnight My guiding star that's shining all the day. Lined up in the amphitheater at the edge of the water, everyone from the Prayer Palace was standing, many with their eyes closed, their hands in the air, weeping, whispering prayers, saying, "Thank you, Jesus." The water of the Jordan is green, with schools of little black fish swimming near the shore. On the opposite bank stand tall, drooping eucalyptus trees. Seagulls are flying over the water. Hundreds of evangelical Christians from churches in Hornlake, Mississippi, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Lakewood, New Jersey and Toronto, as well as churches in India, Malaysia and Colombia, emerge from the changing room carrying towels and wearing white robes and thongs, waiting to file into the amphitheater, and from there to wade waist-deep into the Jordan and be baptized by their pastors "in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." After a second's submersion, some come up from the water and just smile, seemingly a little embarrassed in front of the crowds, and make their way onto the shore. Others cry; one woman from Prayer Palace can't stop sobbing and wailing. "Bring her right out," church Pastor Dr. Paul Melnichuk, watching from the amphitheater, tells his guides in the water. In Yardenit's adjacent baptismal, two stern, gray-bearded Eastern Orthodox priests wearing embroidered robes and dark socks stand in the shallow water, lighting candles and reading from a holy book. They don't actually dunk their half-dozen or so followers, but just sprinkle water on them. There is no singing, talking or smiling. On their way to the baptismal, one of the men in the group refuses to say where they are from, telling us, "Nobody here is going to be interviewed. And don't take our pictures - this is private." Later, a small, nearly all-black contingent of Pentacostal Christians from the Incorruptible Word of Faith Tabernacle in Lakewood, New Jersey went into seizures, Pentacostal fashion - spasming violently, shouting wildly and "speaking in tongues" as the prayers of Pastor Thomas E. Simpson rose in fervor, and the congregants were baptized one after another. "Sanda robo saya, o shayla cara sando," murmurs a middle-aged woman drying off afterward, blurting out the sounds which Pentacostals believe represent the "voice of the Holy Spirit" speaking through them. "I'm whole! I'm whole!" a young woman cries repeatedly as she lingers in the water, supported by a pair of guides, her rocking and writhing beginning to subside. Everyone seems totally drained, utterly at peace. Soon they gather in the water for group photos. THE INTERNATIONAL flock of Christians getting baptized at Yardenit isn't your ordinary tourist scene. Earlier in November, Benny Hinn, the Orlando, Florida-based international evangelical star who leads a giant mission to Israel once or twice a year, held a mass baptism for some 1,500 pilgrims at the site. "He had a huge sound system, singers and everything," marvels the counterman at the snack bar. Other "televangelists" with worldwide audiences such as Morris Cerullo from San Diego, California, John Hagee from San Antonio, Texas, and Kay Arthur from Chattanooga, Tennessee, also lead mass baptisms at Yardenit from year to year. "It's one of the key stops on the standard tour of Israel for evangelicals. The big names show up, but the backbone of Christian tourism is the pastors of the small churches who bring a busload [of pilgrims] every year," says David Parsons, spokesman of the International Christian Embassy, a Jerusalem-based evangelical organization that promotes Israel among Christians around the world, and shepherds several thousand of them to the country each year. Yardenit should be relatively empty over Christmas, which is a family holiday that devout Christians tend to spend at home. The peak seasons here are March-April for Easter and the spring weather, and October-November for the fall weather before Christmas. The flow of pilgrims slows down in the summer because of the heat. "The largest number of them come here from America, then from Europe, then from South America," says Jonathan Bobrov, who manages the baptismal facility for the proprietor, Kibbutz Kinneret, which runs the snack bar, restaurant and giant gift shop filled with Holy Land-branded accessories such as Lily of the Valley's Anointing Oil and Lion of Judah's Men's Perfume. The shop is another mandatory feature on the pilgrimage tour, with Israeli tour guides leading their flocks inside for 15 minutes or so before getting them back on the buses to their Tiberias hotels. Standing in the Jordan River, Pastor Joe Turner of the First Baptist Church of Hornlake, Mississippi says with brave humor to his congregants in the amphitheater, "Trust me when I tell you, it's cold. This is going to be the quickest baptismal on record." Only a few in this group of evangelicals, who came from Hornlake and Village Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, are going to be baptized. They're middle-age or elderly, including Mary Runge of Oklahoma City, who is 89. The shower caps on some of the women, and the dark red painted toenails on one of them, sort of clash with the asceticism of the white robes. "Whoo-o-o-o-o!" hollers one of the men in the water, in the grip not of religious ecstasy but of cold, getting a laugh from his friends in the amphitheater. These pilgrims have all been baptized before at their churches, so they've already been "saved." "This is just symbolism," says Turner. When he submerges a Christian in the water, the pastor says, "You're buried with Him," then pulls the pilgrim back up and says, "You are raised to walk in the newness of life." It's like getting resurrected with Christ. "Amen!" hollered one man for loud effect right after he came up, getting more laughs. "It's great," said another man afterward, adding, "It's cold." UP TO HIS waist in the Jordan, Pastor Lawrence Yap of Charis Christian Center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, was baptizing several congregants while about 30 more in the amphitheater sang, "He is my everything, he is my all..." to an American country gospel melody. Malaysia is the most populous Muslim country in the world, but about 10 percent of its population - 20 million or so - are Christians, says Elizabeth Lee, owner of His Kingdom Tour and Travel agency and the Christian Embassy's Malaysia representative. "I started bringing over groups in 1995," she says, explaining that it was only in that year that Malaysia, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel, began allowing Christian pilgrims to visit. Lee held off on her tours once the intifada broke out, but they resumed last fall for the Christian Embassy's Succot celebrations. "Since then I've brought a group over every month except in the summer," she says. Wading in the water and filling up bottles to take home to India was Pameela Faiju, a young housewife here with her husband and 40-odd other pilgrims from the southern Indian state of Kerala, where some 6 million Christians live. "It's like a dream to be able to finally touch the water where Jesus was baptized. We feel Jesus all through the atmosphere," she says. Faiju, however, finds the contrast between the sense of holiness at Yardenit and the mundane atmosphere in the Holy Land at large - i.e. Israel - to be jarring. "I don't think the people here realize where they're standing," she says. The fact that today, very few of the people living in the Holy Land believe in Christianity doesn't sit too well with her. "Jesus said a prophet will not be accepted in his own country. People here have to open up to Jesus," Faiju says. Neither is she crazy about the prices at the hotel and the restaurants. "It's about four times as high as in India," she notes. Still, she says happily while rushing for the tour bus, "I want to come back as soon as I can." The Pentacostals from the Incorruptible Word of Faith Tabernacle in Lakewood, New Jersey are no strangers to a Jewish environment; their hometown is one of the capitals of American Orthodoxy, with numerous yeshivot and synagogues. Dino Rosato, the only white person in the group of 17, an admitted ex-pimp and drug dealer, sprinkles his English with Yiddish-Hebrew terms he's picked up from neighbors and customers. "I have a mehitza barber shop [with a divider, or mehitza, separating the men and women]," he notes. "I was a goy, born Roman Catholic, but I didn't have ruah hakodesh [the holy spirit]," he says, until he was saved by the Pentacostals. Asked if he tries to convert Jews in Lakewood, Rosato, 31, replies that this is "one of the most important parts of my ministry," although he's had little success so far. "I always carry a Tanach [Hebrew Bible] with me, even though most of the hassids know the Talmud better than they know the Tanach. But you have to be able to give them rebuttals. They'll tell me, 'That's what your religion says,' and I'll show them in the Tanach and say, 'No, that's what your Bible says.'" This is the first time in Israel for everyone in the Lakewood group. "I love it. I want to come live here," says Pastor Thomas E. Simpson. Asked how the people in his congregation get along with the hassidim back home, he says, "The Jews there are different than the Jews here. They keep to themselves. If you work for them, they'll pay you, but that's it." THE YARDENIT baptismal site was built in 1980 because, farther south, the Jordan River had become too polluted for all the Christians holding baptisms there, says Bobrov. The changing room and other improvements were made in advance of the huge influx of Christians for the millennium year, which saw some 600,000 pilgrims visiting Yardenit. But even while pilgrims are known as the hardiest visitors to Israel - the last to cancel their trips because of terrorism - the outbreak of the intifada in September of 2000 reduced baptisms at Yardenit dramatically. Visits to the site in 2001 fell to about 200,000, and the year afterward, when terrorist attacks reached their peak, they fell further to 80,000-100,000. But as Israel began to get a handle on the intifada in 2003, the number of pilgrims at the baptismal site began to rise back up again, then continued to climb in 2004. They will top 300,000 this year, says Bobrov. Israeli tourism officials are talking with leading American evangelists about building a $60 million, multimedia Christian visitors park on the northwest side of the Kinneret, where pilgrims visit Capernaum, Tabgha, the Mount of the Beatitudes and other holy sites. Evangelical elder Pat Robertson has endorsed the project. Bobrov, however, is skeptical. "They've been talking about this for years," he says. "With all the bureaucratic committees they have to go through, I don't see it being built in less than 10 years." The Israeli decision to construct the Yardenit baptismal site in 1980 was made with inadvertently great timing. The coming decade saw the swelling of a worldwide Christian revival, especially among evangelicals, which translated into a dramatic increase in pilgrimages to Israel. Those years also marked the rise of the Christian Right in America, which, except for the odd, vestigial slip of the tongue by a few pastors, turned away from its long-standing inclination toward anti-Semitism and moved in the opposite direction - toward uncompromising advocacy for Greater Israel and wrath against Israel's Muslim enemies. At first, many Israelis suspected that the evangelicals took a cynical, instrumental view of Zionism - that Jewish settlement was vital to speed the New Testament prophecy of Jesus's Second Coming, after which, according to the prophecy, Jews and other nonbelievers would either accept Jesus or die. By now, though, most Israelis seem to appreciate, and frequently admire, the fundamentalists for their endless support and plainly genuine love for this country and its Jews. AFTER THE baptisms of his congregants from Prayer Palace, one of Canada's largest churches, Pastor Melnichuk, a young-spirited 71, tells them in his warm, easy manner, "That's it. You can go shopping now. Shop til you drop. Get ready for dinner at 7." As they file out of the amphitheater, Melnichuk, who, wearing his windbreaker, looks like a football coach letting his team go after practice, says he's been bringing groups to Israel for 30 years. "Israel is our roots," he says. "Christians want to see their roots, and they also realize it's Israel that gave them their foundation." The Prayer Palace's pilgrimages were suspended "when those guys started to raise their heads," Melnichuk says, referring to the intifada. The signal for the resumption of the pilgrimages came on November 11, 2004. "One of our members said to me, 'Pastor, Arafat's dead, let's go back to Israel,'" he laughs, immediately adding that he "respects Muslims." The political situation in Israel has taken a temporary turn for the worse, he continues. "We're saddened to see the country being divided a bit, but that's our stand," he says, referring to the disengagement. "All the evangelical Christians are distraught over it. What are you compromising over?" he says, his voice rising a little, his words taking on a ringing cadence. "Where are your Joshuas and your Davids? What was it that God promised Abraham and Joshua? Take the land, don't give it away, it's yours. It's not what some politicians say, it's what the Bible says." Going easy on Israel's government, he turns down the heat for a moment. "I know they've got their peace reasons," he says. "But even if they have to sacrifice some [territory] temporarily, it'll all come back to them - plus." As the peaceful atmosphere deepens at the Yardenit with the approach of sunset, a fierce, ragged shout comes from the adjacent baptismal. "Oh, there go the Pentacostals," Melnichuk says, smiling. Asked about the contradiction between evangelical Christians' exaltation of everything Jewish and their faith that Judaism will be swept away by the final revelation of Christianity, the pastor sees no contradiction, only a single truth. "Israel is going to face Armageddon, they will cry out to their savior. The blinders will drop from Israel's eyes and they will receive their messiah gladly," he testifies. "God has a destiny for Israel. It hasn't been worked out yet. It's been on the back burner. But God's destiny for Israel will be fulfilled." THE FOLLOWING morning, the tour buses take the Prayer Palace and Incorruptible Word of Faith Tabernacle pilgrims to the Mount of the Beatitudes, where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. After the Prayer Palace group gets off the bus, their tour guide, 73-year-old Itzik Gronberg - called "Isaac" by his charges - says he's developed a close bond with the evangelical movement from taking many thousands of its people around Israel over the decades. "I've appeared eight times on The 700 Club [Pat Robertson's hugely popular TV show, broadcast from Virginia Beach, Virginia]," Gronberg notes. He's also spoken to evangelical audiences in America several times on behalf of another ministry, saying these talks have resulted in donations of hundreds of thousands of dollars to Israeli terror victims. "I didn't even ask for money, they just gave it spontaneously," he says. Evangelists are not only pro-Israel, Gronberg finds, they're also anti-Muslim. "They don't like them," he says. "They may believe God created the Muslims, but they see them as idolaters." The tour guide understands fully well that his Judeophile friends are thinking all along that in the end, he and the rest of the Jews will be joining them in worshiping Christ. "By supporting Israel, they see it as bringing Jews to the 'messiah,'" he says. This doesn't bother him at all. Asked if any of the evangelicals ever try to talk him into getting baptized, he smiles and says, "Oh, of course. Some minister will tell me, 'C'mon, Isaac, what do you say, let me baptize you in the Jordan.' And I'll tell him, 'Sure thing, on one condition - that you agree to be circumcised.'" At the Basilica of the Mount of the Beatitudes, Izzy Rodrigue, guide for the group from the Incorruptible Word of Faith Tabernacle, brings up the Sermon on the Mount. "This was the highlight of Jesus's public life," he says. "He told all the unfortunates and lost souls that it was bad for them now, but later on..." Rodrigue, 69, makes a face and hand gesture that indicate he doesn't put much stock in this notion. "But I don't tell them that. You have to respect people's beliefs," he stresses. Walking out in the garden, he throws his arm around one of the Pentacostal women on the tour. "You're so sweet," she smiles at him, then adds, "You're sweet because you've got Jesus inside you." Smiling back, he says, "Yes, yes. I agree." THE PILGRIMS from the Prayer Palace have sat down on the stone bleachers in the covered amphitheater on the Mount of the Beatitudes. The air is filled with the smell of wildflowers and grass, and with the music of the birds. "Twenty or 30 years ago we had to sit on the grass," Melnichuk, whom everyone calls Pastor Paul, tells the congregation. "Now look what they've built for us." Melnichuk begins telling them about Jesus's ministry in the Galilee, about the sermon he gave where they were sitting, and how in a little while they would be going on the bus down to where he performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes. And then the pastor gets into how unpopular Jesus was with his co-religionists, about the antagonism Jesus faced. "He was despised," the pastor tells the rapt assembly. "His theology wasn't accepted, because here was God in the flesh. He went to the temples and they persecuted him. He scattered the moneychangers." Standing at the podium in front of a large wooden cross, the pastor leans forward and calls out loudly, "Who crucified the Lord?" It would be enough to make a Jew in the audience stop breathing. Lowering his voice, the pastor gives the answer. "My sin did," he said. "Your sin did." And a Jew in the audience might have sighed and said to himself, "Hallelujah." By the time Melnichuk is finished, Christians and Jews are together again in the battle against evil, and Israel is going to win it for them. "Israel will become the spiritual head of the world, the financial head of the world, and the political head of the world - and soon," he prophesies. He calls the gospel singing trio to the podium and has them read from Matthew in the New Testament: "And seeing the multitudes, He went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him. Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying: Blessed are the poor in spirit, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, For they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, For they shall inherit the earth..." Then the pastor tells his congregation to rise and make their own personal prayers to God, and a growing cacophony of voices and weeping fills the amphitheater, and hands rise in the air. Then, at the pastor's direction, the congregation's clamor gives way to the sound of gospel harmony: Then sings my soul, my savior God, to Thee, How great Thou art, how great Thou art... The pilgrims, leaving the amphitheater, have a long day of sightseeing ahead of them. They board the bus and head down to the bottom of the hillside, where the Sea of Galilee is shining with the sun's reflection. $1,000 or more per person In the first 11 months of this year, some 800,000 Christian tourists visited Israel, out of a total of roughly 1.75 million tourists, said the Tourism Ministry. This represents about a 60% increase in the number of Christian tourists from 2004. The ministry estimates that each tourist in Israel spends $1,000 here, which would mean that Christians brought $800 million into the economy in 2005, through November. However, the true figure is undoubtedly much higher - because the hundreds of thousands of Christians who come here annually on pilgrimage tours, which are focused in Jerusalem and the Galilee, typically spend 7-10 days in the country, which costs much more than $1,000.

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